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The Arts Desk (UK)- It has a killer ending. Fabulous, in other words.

May 18, 2012

Graham Rickson

Half Monk/Half Rascal: Unaccompanied choral music by Francis Poulenc Danish National Vocal Ensemble/Stephen Layton (OUR Recordings)
“A critic said that there is both a monk and a street urchin in me. That is an accurate description of my personality.” Poulenc was the first to admit the contradictions inherent in his music and character. A devout Catholic, he was openly gay, and his music can miraculously reconcile the deeply personal with the cheekily flippant. Close your ears to Poulenc and you’re missing out on some of the 20th century’s most alluring music. Listening repeatedly to this sharply performed a cappella choral collection is fascinating. It’s easy to dismiss Poulenc as a Tatiesque clown, but the rawer sonorities serve to highlight just how sophisticated a composer he was. It’s all in the harmonies and chord progressions – often breaking every rule but invariably sounding wonderful. This is music which can make life feel worth living.
Stephen Layton’s Danish choir give exemplary performances. At times there’s a welcome edge to the sound, a toughness, coupled with superb control – the major/minor shifts in La blanche neige are superbly done, as is the abrupt fade out at the song’s close. There’s a rare chance to hear two religious works for male voices, but the real masterpiece is Un soir de neige, a wartime setting of poetry by Paul Éluard. The opening of Bois meutri is chilling. And while you’re still marvelling at Poulenc’s eloquence in serious mode, move on to the exuberant collection of Chansons Françaises, and the tiny Chanson à boire composed for a Harvard Glee Club. It has a killer ending. Fabulous, in other words.

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